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(a concept possibly more familiar in fan fiction than in litfic.) You know what I mean, that way a writer can casually drop a shared cultural reference which not only conveys in one or two words a huge cargo of meaning and information to his/her readers, but does it more powerfully than by any other method, both because of the weight of emotion and memory it already carries and because the reader has pretty much arrived at the meaning independently rather than being led there. It's extremely common in fan fiction because that relies on shared cultural references, but one good litfic example is Francis Lauderdale Adams' poem "Hagar", where by giving this title to a poem about an outcast unmarried mother, he conveys to anyone acquainted with the book of Genesis that not only is the girl in this condition, the man who caused it was almost certainly some patriarch, some pillar of the community (think master and housemaid).

It's harder to do in litfic these days, precisely because you can't rely on readers having heard of Abraham, Circe or various other mythological/historical personages whose names and stories were once common currency. And as soon as you have to add footnotes, much of the effect is gone. Nonetheless, one of my favourite poems is an 8-liner from 9th-century China which takes this technique to such extremes that when A C Graham translated it in his Poems of the Late T'ang (Penguin 1965) he had to paraphrase it for Western readers. Obviously these references wouldn't have been anything like as arcane to a T'ang Chinese reader as they are to us, and one can only guess at the way the meaning would have insinuated itself, trailing all the emotions and associations he's haunted it with. In the vague hope of re-creating something of that effect, the background info first:

The lovely and dissolute Queen of Wei once gave audience to Confucius behind a brocade curtain.
Prince O, out in a boat with his lover, piled embroidered quilts above her for warmth.
In the dance Drooping Hands, girls wear jade waist-pendants; in the dance Snapping Waists, they wear saffron skirts.
Shih Chung cooked a banquet over the flames of massed candles.
Hsun Yu exuded a natural perfume which lingered where he had been.
The poet Chiang Yen dreamed that a poet's ghost visited him to take back his brush of many colours; when he woke, he found he had lost his ability to write.
A goddess slept with King Huai in a dream; when she left he asked her name and she said "At dawn, I am the clouds of morning; at sunset the driving rain."

(Li Shang-yin, translated and paraphrased by A C Graham)

The brocade curtains have just rolled back. Behold the Queen of Wei.
Still he piles up the embroidered quilts, Prince O in Yüeh.
Drooping hands disturb, tip over, pendants of carved jade:
Snapping waists compete in the dance, fluttering saffron skirts.
Shih Ch’ung’s candles — but who would clip them?
Hsün Yü’s braziers, where no incense fumes.
I who was given in a dream the brush of many colours
Wish to write on petals a message to the clouds of the morning.

The peonies have burst their buds, like the Queen of Wei rolling back her brocade curtain. New leaves grow above the flowers like the embroidered quilts Prince O piled over his lover in the boat. In light wind, the flowers dip like the sleeves of girls in the slow dance Drooping Hands, upsetting dewdrops like the carved waist-pendants on the dancers' girdles; in high winds, the stalks bend like girls in the fast dance Snapping Waists, fluttering their saffron petals like the dancers' skirts. They blaze like Shih Chung's massed candles, but their splendour is natural; candles burn only if their wicks are trimmed and who would cut the peonies? Their scent too is natural, like that of Hsun Yu. I, who dream that I have the gift of poetry which Chiang Yen dreamed of losing, send you this message, figuring your beauty in that of the peony, and asking you to favour me as the goddess did King Huai.

I never tried this on students, because some were ready enough to cry "elitist" if any poet used a reference they hadn't come across. But even without being able to experience it as a T'ang Chinese would have done, I still find its technique utterly enchanting. What interests me is that I can't think of any Western work, offhand, that uses this technique in the same intense, concentrated way as this one (unless indeed it would be certain fan fiction stories). I suppose Eliot is the obvious candidate, yet no poem of his works quite the way this does for me. It surely could be done, though, even with the decayed state of our cultural currency, and it'd be interesting to try.

EDIT: I've just realised I was 16 when I first read this in 1966 (the book was a birthday present from my best friend at school, thanks, Anna Cortens and where are you now?) and it totally changed my perception of what poems could be and do.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-02 07:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, my; that's amazing. I can't think of any English language examples either. Thank you for sharing this. I do worry about younger folks today, who seem to have lost most classical/biblical knowledge and dwell almost exclusively in pop culture. I work with undergraduates at a major university, so I'm speaking from years of experience.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-02 10:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] andy williams (from
"'d be interesting to try." That sounds like a challenge to me!

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-02 11:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I can't think of any Western work, offhand, that uses this technique in the same intense, concentrated way as this one

The Old English poem Deor comes to mind. But it is more diffuse than the poem by Li Shang-yin.


Date: 2011-07-23 08:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
So lovely to see a Tang poem being appreciated, Arthur Waley is good for some direct Eng lang reading, Pound is quirky but sometimes magical (Canto 13) and i unfortunately have to read it in the original. Nice blog. Keep at it and as regards the lamentably arid level of brain activity these days among the young and their pop culture .... oh dearie me!! I was tempted to say I would beat them with a stick till they started to see some sense ....are we able to say this circa 2011??


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